A Different Kind of Marathon: Leah’s Birth Story

When I found out I was pregnant with Leah, I hadn’t even thought about what kind of birth I wanted to have. To be honest, we had barely adjusted to the idea of trying to GET pregnant. Of course, Joshua and I had always talked about wanting to have children someday. And when we were finished with school, settled into our new home, and both had stable jobs, the time seemed right to start trying. But I don’t think either of us expected a positive pregnancy test less than a month after we made that decision!

In those early weeks, I was afraid to get too excited. So many people I’m close to have lost their babies early in their pregnancies. Making too many plans for a birth nine months in the future felt like tempting fate. It was hard not to worry, but eventually I came to terms with the fact that I truly had no control over the outcome of this pregnancy. All I could do was make the healthiest decisions I could to nurture this new life growing inside me, and leave the rest in God’s hands. I thanked Him every morning for the blessing of getting to carry my baby that day, regardless of what might happen tomorrow.

But around halfway through the pregnancy, with a newly bulging belly and ever stronger kicks reminding me that I was never alone, I could no longer ignore the fact that soon, this little lady would need to make her entrance to the world. I began reading some books about natural childbirth. And the more I learned, the more I felt that this was the right decision for my baby and myself. When I met her for the first time, I didn’t want my mind dulled with any pain medication. I wanted to be fully present for the whole experience. I didn’t want any medications in her tiny body that might make the birth process harder on her, or affect her ability to be fully alert to nurse and bond with her Daddy and me when she arrived. So I began making plans for a natural birth.

Many people who make this decision hire a midwife instead of an obstetrician. Midwives have lots of experience with normal births, which can often happen in the comfort of home, while obstetricians are trained to handle high risk deliveries where life-saving medical interventions are necessary. These interventions are wonderful in births where they are actually needed, but they are sometimes overused in normal births, leading to unnecessary surgeries and drugs for the mother and the child. If I had another baby, I thought I might like to try the midwife route. But I did not want to switch care providers so late in this pregnancy. So I stayed with Dr. Sick, the obstetrician I’d been seeing since I got pregnant with Leah, and decided to hire a doula, Nicolle, to help support me in achieving as natural a birth as I could in the hospital.

My plan was to labor as long as I could at home. In a typical labor, contractions start mild and short with lots of time to rest in between. I had read birth stories of couples going out to a restaurant for one last meal together while the wife was in early labor! I thought that sounded great. Stay at home as long as I could cope, and when contractions began getting longer and closer together, we would go to the hospital and hopefully have a baby very quickly.

But Leah had other ideas about how she wanted to make her arrival. I was so excited when I reached 37 weeks of pregnancy, when a baby is considered at term and can safely arrive at any time. I had many friends who had their babies this early, or shortly thereafter. So I waited expectantly, wondering each night if this would be the night I went into labor. I did everything the books recommended to naturally prepare my body for labor – eating six dates a day, drinking red raspberry leaf tea, continuing to run, eating spicy foods, getting massages, you name it. And I woke up each morning to find that I was still very pregnant… through week 38… and week 39… and week 40.

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Running with some good friends at 38 weeks pregnant!
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I kept hoping that one of these runs would encourage her to come!

It turns out that this is the time obstetricians like to talk about induction. In a healthy pregnancy, it can be normal and safe for babies to be delivered at 42 weeks and beyond. However, there is a small but significant increase in the percentage of stillborn babies after 42 weeks. So the current medical recommmendation in the United States is not to allow pregnancies to go beyond this point.

An induction involves administering medications to soften the cervix, if necessary, and then giving synthetic oxytocin which forces the uterus to have very strong, close contractions, which are often much more painful and put the baby under more stress than regular contractions. Most women need an epidural to cope with the pain of a pitocin-induced labor. Sometimes, despite all of this, inductions can fail and result in the need for a C-section.

I really, really did not want to have to induce. But I also didn’t want to put my baby at risk by keeping her inside too long, even though I knew the risk was very small. So I consented to an induction on the Thursday that I would reach 41 weeks 5 days, if she did not make her appearance before then.

Week 41 came and went, and I became more and more anxious as the induction day approached. If you’ve heard of any natural methods of inducing labor, chances are, I tried it. But there was one thing I hadn’t tried. Its use is a little controversial because it doesn’t always work to induce labor, but chances are good it will cause the mother to become nauseated, dehydrated, and exhausted. For the baby, though, there are far fewer documented risks than those of medical inductions. So on the Sunday of my induction week, I decided it would be worth it to plan to stay home all day and give it a try.

I got up Sunday morning, had a good breakfast, and drank a big bottle of electrolyte drink. Then I went for my usual mile walk that I tried to get in on non-running days. Finally, at 8:00am, I made a castor oil smoothie… which was about as delicious as it sounds. I got it all down though, and then waited to see if anything would happen.

A couple hours later, the diarrhea started. I pretty much had to camp out in the bathroom. But in addition to the expected diarrhea cramps, I was beginning to experience some cramping in my abdomen and lower back that was more rhythmic. In fact, it was happening every 2-3 minutes. Surely this wasn’t early labor? From everything I had read, early labor contractions happened much further apart and were fairly mild – these HURT! I sat on a heating pad to help ease the pain.

Then, during one of my bathroom trips, I found something that looked suspiciously like part of my mucus plug. It was bloody, and up until this point, I’d had no bleeding for the entire pregnancy. I continued to find more of this bloody discharge… and then, some fluid that had a greenish tinge. Was this just more mucus plug, or something else? I was worried that my water may have broken – it doesn’t always come out in a huge gush like in the movies, but sometimes is just a slow trickle. And a green color can mean that the baby has passed meconium, which can be a sign of fetal distress. I called Nicolle, my doula, and we decided that the safest thing would be to head to the hospital to get the fluid checked and make sure the baby was okay.

As Joshua drove me to the hospital, the cramping continued to happen every 2-3 minutes. The car ride was extremely uncomfortable – bumpy roads just made the pain more intense. Finally, we arrived in triage, where they had me lie down in a bed and get hooked up to a monitor that asssessed the baby’s heart rate and the strength of my contractions. And yes, that is definitely what the cramps were. These weren’t little cramps that I could ignore – I had to focus on breathing deeply through each contraction. And thanks to the castor oil, I was still having to get up and make frequent trips to the triage bathroom. This certainly wasn’t the happy, carefree beginning to labor that I had imagined. But as hard as it was, I was thankful that I was here getting ready to have my baby instead of waiting to be induced on Thursday. And maybe since my contractions are so close together, I reasoned hopefully, that means I’ll end up having a short labor!

They tested the fluid and found that it was not amniotic fluid, but actually was part of my mucus plug. They checked my cervix, which was extremely uncomfortable and set off more contractions. (I will mention here that I requested in my birth plan not to be informed of my dilation or effacement, because these numbers only represent a snapshot in time that can change quickly, and I didn’t want to be discouraged in my laboring if the numbers were lower than expected. But I will include the numbers as I found them out later from discussions with Joshua and Nicolle.) I was only 1-cm dilated and 50% effaced, which indicated very early labor – these numbers actually weren’t any different than they were at my last routine visit with Dr. Sick. But because my contractions were so frequent, they decided to keep me in the hospital.

I was wheeled to a large, quiet hospital room which was immensely more comfortable than triage. It even had a whirlpool tub in the bathroom! I was allowed to have intermittent monitoring – 30 minutes with the fetal monitor on, and 30 minutes off when I was free to move around the room and even walk the hospital halls. Nicolle arrived shortly and encouraged me to do just that – stay as active as possible to help encourage my cervix to dilate and the baby to descend. We enjoyed walking and conversing, stopping every few minutes so I could lean against the wall and sway through a contraction.

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At one point, Nicolle even had me doing walking lunges down the hospital hallways. Obviously still in early labor judging by the fact that I was still able to smile between contractions!

Back in the room, when I was attached to the monitor, we continued to try different positions such as sitting on my birth ball, lying on my side with the peanut ball, or even standing and swaying while leaning against Joshua, which made for some especially precious and intimate moments even with the pain. I was so thankful that I was free to labor in different positions instead of having to lie on my back, which is how you always see people laboring in movies, but for me was the most uncomfortable position of all to deal with a contraction.

I knew my dreams of a quick birth were not going to happen when Nicolle announced after a cervical check that she would be going home to sleep that night and returning in the morning to help me through the rest of my labor. Joshua and I stayed up awhile longer. During one of my breaks from the monitors, he filled up the whirlpool tub for me. The heat and massage felt great during contractions. But all too soon, it was time to get out and put the monitors back on.

Finally we decided to lie down in bed and try to get what little sleep we could. The contractions continued to get more intense, and never spread more than 5 minutes apart. At this point, in addition to my breathing techniques, I needed pressure on my lower back to help me get through them. I would doze off, then a contraction would rudely wake me up, and I would elbow Joshua awake to give me the pressure I needed. I began quietly moaning to help me manage the intensity of the contractions. I felt they were harder to deal with when I was asleep, because I was never able to get ahead of them when they first started – by the time they woke me up, they were already reaching their highest intensity. This strange state of half-consciousness continued through the night.

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Every time a contraction hit, I focused inward, trying to  relax my face and jaw as much as possible as I breathed deep and let my cervix open. Photo by W.D. Photography

I did not like the overnight nurse. She kept coming in and telling me “The baby doesn’t like that side” and I needed to roll over onto my other side. I think the monitors were just having issues. At one point, she was concerned about Leah’s heart rate getting too low, and she started me on IV fluids and had me wear an oxygen mask. Thankfully I didn’t need these for long – they determined her umbilical cord had been in a strange position where it was getting compressed every time I had a contraction, and her heart rate issues resolved once she changed positions. I got sick a couple times, which apparently is pretty common during labor. The nurse asked me if I wanted something for the nausea, and I sleepily accepted. She didn’t tell me until after she’d given me an IV dose of phenergan that it would make me very dizzy, and I shouldn’t get out of bed until the effects wore off. And not long after the medication was given, I got sick again anyway!

Finally morning came, the phenergan wore off, and Nicolle returned. I immediately felt more comfortable with her there. She was able to relieve Joshua of his duty of putting pressure on my back, which I really needed right now to get through each progressively more intense contraction. At some point, our amazing birth photographer Whitney arrived and began capturing moments that would otherwise have just been a labor blur to me.

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Nicolle encouraged me to stay active and vary positions throughout my whole labor. At one point, we even got up and did a little dancing! Photo by W.D. Photography
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The birth ball ended up being one of my favorite places to labor. Photo by W.D. Photography

I allowed myself to become more vocal, moaning more loudly in concert with the intensity of the contraction. I was careful not to allow these sounds to become shrill or fearful, which can actually inhibit the progression of labor. I imagined myself as a lion roaring powerfully, although in reality I probably sounded more like a cow! For a few contractions, I squirmed into different positions to try to find one that would lessen the pain. This didn’t work, and trying to escape the pain just made me more anxious. The mental strategy that ended up helping me the most was reminding myself that the only way out of the pain was to work through it. And work through it I did – roaring/mooing as loudly as I needed to at the peak of each contraction, then enjoying the short breaks that allowed me to recover for the next one.

Nicolle continued encouraging me to try different positions. Some worked better than others. My favorites were the ones where I could be close to Joshua, Having him hold me through the most difficult moments I’d ever been through is one of my favorite memories of this birth. He handled it like a champ, showing his support and love through this whole ultramarathon of labor, even when I was yelling at the top of my lungs in his ear!

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Photo by W.D. Photography
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Photo by W.D. Photography
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Photo by W.D. Photography
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Photo by W.D. Photography

At some point in the morning, Dr. Sick decided it would be a good idea to break my water to encourage labor to progress a little more quickly. A few hours later, she still wasn’t happy with the speed at which I was progressing. (I found out later that my labor had stalled at 9-cm, and there was a small cervical lip preventing my cervix from dilating all the way.) We tried using a breast pump to stimulate my nipples, which releases oxytocin and can help increase the strength of contractions. But that wasn’t enough to get me dilated all the way.

Finally we decided that the best thing to help my labor progress would be to give me a low dose of Pitocin. Throughout my labor so far, I had not been scared. The process was very intense, but it was an intensity generated by my own body that, though challenging, I knew I could deal with. I’d heard so many scary things about Pitocin, and everyone said that contractions hurt a lot more when it was on board. Many people couldn’t handle the pain without an epidural. When they started the Pitocin drip, that was the closest I ever got to experiencing fear… not for myself or for Leah, but that I wouldn’t be able to do this without drugs. I expressed my fears to Joshua and Nicolle, and they both reassured me that I could do this. I focused on getting through one contraction at a time, yelling even louder than I’d been yelling before, and wondering how much more of this I could take. This was definitely the most intense part of labor, but it was thankfully very short. The Pitocin had done the trick, and before I knew it, they said that I was fully dilated and could start pushing!

Many people say that pushing is the best part of labor, because finally you get to do something instead of just managing your pain through each contraction. Personally, I did not enjoy it. I kept thinking about the fact that I hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast yesterday, and it was almost dinnertime. I wouldn’t run a marathon without fueling, and here I was expected to push a baby out of my body. I hoped I would be able to do it.

At first they tried having me push on my side. But the doctor kept inserting her finger to feel the baby’s head while I was pushing, and it felt very unnatural to me to push while I was being examined in this way. I did not make much progress in the side-lying position – whether because of the position or because of the constant examinations, I don’t know. But they finally had me try the lithotomy position – the typical lying-back-in-the-bed that you see in movies. This is actually supposed to be one of the least effective positions for pushing, and one of the most likely positions to tear. I knew all this, but I was too tired to argue. I finally did request that the doctor remove her finger and let me try pushing without it. Nicolle held a scarf that I pulled against while I pushed – waiting for the peak of a contraction… then holding my breath and pushing as hard as I could for the count of ten… then taking a quick breath and repeating the process two more times before recovering my breath and waiting for another contraction. And after a couple pushes in the new position, Dr. Sick said that the baby was moving down the birth canal.

After some more pushing, they announced that they could see her head, and I got to reach down and feel her! It was such a surreal moment, touching my baby who was so close to emerging into the world. Someone got me a mirror which allowed me to watch her crowning. Pushing was a little more tolerable now that I could see my progress. At one point, Dr. Sick commented on how much hair she had, and stroked her little head. The head responded by popping quickly back inside. Joshua and I both adamantly requested that there be no more head stroking!

Some people describe crowning as one of the most painful parts of labor, giving it such descriptive names as the “ring of fire.” For me, it wasn’t that bad… it just felt like a tingling, stretching sensation. This allowed me to push her out slowly enough to keep tearing to a minimum. Each time I pushed, the crown of her head that was visible grew a little larger. And finally, after about 2 hours of pushing, the big moment came – I gave the biggest push I could muster, and out popped her head, with the rest of her body sliding easily behind!

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Photo by W.D. Photography
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Photo by W.D. Photography
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Photo by W.D. Photography
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Photo by W.D. Photography

No words can describe the relief I felt at this moment, after what ended up being 30 hours of labor without a drop of pain medication. No words can describe the emotions that flooded me when someone said, “Look at your baby!” and I looked up and saw her face for the first time. She came out pink and screaming at the top of her lungs, and I thought those screams were the most beautiful sound I ever heard. There did end up being some meconium in her amniotic fluid, so they needed to spend some extra time suctioning all the fluid out to make sure it didn’t get into her lungs. But they didn’t take her away before letting me hold her a moment. Who would have thought that I could have such love for this wet, pruney little being that they laid on my chest? I was bawling happy tears.

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Photo by W.D. Photography
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Photo by W.D. Photography

They were able to do all her necessary care in the room by my bed, and soon she was back on my chest. I had sustained a first degree tear and was getting stitches, but I didn’t care. The pain was nothing compared to what I had just endured, and I was joyously distracted by the sweet little person in my arms.

There would be a lot of challenging moments over the next few weeks as Joshua and I figured out how to be parents. But for that moment, everything was perfect. Snuggling with our daughter, looking into her eyes, wondering at every perfect little part of her.

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Photo by W.D. Photography
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Photo by W.D. Photography
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Photo by W.D. Photography
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Photo by W.D. Photography
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Photo by W.D. Photography

I’ve run a lot of races and crossed a lot of finish lines. But no ultramarathon will ever match the intensity of the race I had just run. And no finish line prize could ever compare with the beautiful child I now held in my arms. My birth plan didn’t happen exactly the way I wanted it to, but thanks to Nicolle, Joshua, and a very supportive obstetritician, it was pretty close.

The experience made me realize anew how blessed I am to have such a wonderful husband, and now I had a wonderful daughter too. We were a family! And as I held little Leah close, I decided that of all my life accomplishments – marathons, academic achievements, college degrees, my veterinary career – this was the one I was the most proud of.

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Photo by Bella Baby Photography
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Running Pregnant – The Tough Parts!

The weeks keep ticking by. Our baby girl keeps getting bigger and bigger. And running… well, it keeps getting harder and harder. I try to keep my posts on this blog as positive and uplifting as I can. And I’m still SO thankful to be carrying this precious little girl – I truly am. But you’ll have to forgive me if I need to vent a little bit today and be real about some of the struggles I’ve faced with my running during this pregnancy. It isn’t all “glowing” and sweet little baby kicks (the latter of which I am loving, by the way! Her movements are unmistakable now, and even her Daddy can feel them from the outside!) I won’t be recapping a race like I usually do, just talking about the challenges of pregnant running in general. So if you’d rather wait for one of my more “normal” posts, I won’t be offended if you want to skip this one. 🙂

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My most recent “bump progression” picture. I’m actually 23 weeks at the time of this writing, so it’s probably time for a new one!

It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been pregnant how different running is for a pregnant athlete. All you can see from the outside is that her belly is getting bigger. But people with big bellies run all the time, sometimes very fast! Surely with the time her body will have to adjust to the weight gain, it won’t affect her performance that much. At least, that is what I naively hoped when I first found out I was pregnant. It would be like training with a weight vest that gradually got heavier. Maybe I could even be stronger at the end of the pregnancy than I was at the beginning!

But on the inside, there are SO many things changing besides the big belly. Even before I had a positive pregnancy test, I noticed that my Garmin was consistently reading out a higher average resting heart rate. I used to love conquering a big hill – but now, hills unexplicably left me huffing and puffing, slowing my pace down far more than they used to. I guess when your cardiovascular system is busy shuttling oxygen and nutrients to another little life, there isn’t too much left over for helping you glide effortlessly up hills.

Pregnancy exhaustion is real. It’s so much harder not to hit the snooze button when the alarm goes off for you to get your pre-work run in. What about running over a lunch break? Most of the time, I am so exhausted that I fall fast asleep during that hour each day – and I’ve never been one to take naps.

And then there are things you would never think about being a problem during pregnancy, like brand new places you find chafed at the end of a long run. The sad truth is, you don’t just gain weight in your belly – you gain it EVERYWHERE. And that brings fun new problems like thigh chafing. And my latest favorite: chafing right under my bra line, where my growing bump is now apparently rubbing against my decidedly larger bust!

Then there are things that I really don’t have a good explanation for. For example, I really don’t know why my legs never feel recovered despite decreasing my weekly mileage and adding in an extra rest day. Every single run these days starts with tired, heavy legs that feel like I’ve already been out running for 5 or 6 miles. It’s just something I’m learning to adjust to as my new normal.

Oh – and then there’s the brand new clumsiness and lack of balance. I have fallen HARD on my knees not once, but 3 times during this pregnancy so far. Prior to this, I can’t remember when I last fell on the pavement (trails are a different story.) This has made me a lot more nervous every time I go out for a run. I’m constantly watching the ground in front of me for potential obstacles instead of happily losing myself in the scenery like I used to. I’m scared to run alone. I miss the feeling of freedom, confidence, and fearlessness that I used to bring with me when I went for a run, and I really hope I can capture that feeling again after the baby is born.

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My shadow made me smile at the end of a sunny run, so I had to snap a picture. No mistaking that baby bump now!

Pregnancy has humbled me and changed me as an athlete in so many ways. Probably the hardest part for me has been steadily watching my pace get slower, while the effort required to go for a run is getting higher and higher. When I run by myself or with my husband, I try not to look at the watch and just run by effort. This has helped me stay pretty positive despite all these changes.

But recently, I had a really low point in my running when I tried to go for a group run with some ladies I have never previously had any problems keeping up with. They were all faster than me that day, and try as I might, my tired legs could not keep up with theirs. I ended up running the vast majority of those miles alone, maybe with an occasional glimpse of my friends far in the distance ahead of me. Eventually I lost them, and since I didn’t know the route very well, I had to find my own way back to familiar territory where I could finish my miles on my own. I cried all the way home after that run. (I’m sure pregnancy hormones weren’t helping much with my emotional state.) I just felt so alone, like there is nowhere in the running community where I really fit in at this point in my journey.

That’s just the way things are right now in this crazy physical and emotional roller coaster of pregnancy. And while a good cry is okay, and sometimes very needed, I knew that eventually I had to pull myself together and start focusing on some positive aspects of where I am at RIGHT NOW on my running journey, or else the next few months are going to be some very long ones.

I guess my point of sharing all this is to try to give other runners thinking about becoming a Mommy a realistic idea of the kinds of challenges they might be able to expect on this journey. Maybe you can handle them a little better than I have! 🙂 Or if you are currently pregnant and struggling with all these new challenges, maybe you won’t feel quite so alone after hearing about someone else’s struggles.

And if you’re not pregnant, but you know a runner who is… please go give her a big high five and let her know how proud you are of her. The further I get in this journey, the more meaningful little words of encouragement from my running friends are. (Don’t be surprised if that pregnant runner cries when you give her a high five, though… these hormones are seriously no joke!)

On the outside, it looks like us pregnant runners are getting slower and more out of shape. We’re probably running fewer days and less miles. But on the inside, we are working harder than we’ve ever worked in a training cycle before. We’re still getting out there and putting in the work even though our paces are getting progressively slower instead of faster. Even though each run is feeling harder instead of easier. As we watch our friends achieve new PR’s, we wonder how long it will be before we can even think about being in that kind of shape again. We wonder when our bodies will be ready to really train for a big race again.

But this training, as difficult as it is for me physically and mentally, will be so worth it in about 4 months. I have to remember that the goal race I’m training for is VERY different from any I have run in the past, so it makes sense that my training would look very different too. The race I’m talking about is, of course, the marathon of labor. It’s a funny race – I don’t know what day or what time it will start, how many hours it will take, or how painful I can expect it to be… although I know for certain it will be the hardest race of my life. All I can do is keep training for it the best I can, staying active to keep me and my little girl healthy so we will be ready for that most special of race days! And that will be worth every bite of humble pie that I have to eat between now and then. 🙂

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One of my favorite pictures captured of me and my little running buddy so far.  22 weeks along, and giving our best effort at a warm, humid 5k! 

Coming up soon… a recap of some recent races since Run The Line. Most have not been super fast, but they HAVE been super fun and memorable in other ways! 🙂

Run the Line Half Marathon (17 weeks pregnant)

When you first start running (or when you first implement a nutrition system that better supports your running), you improve quickly. For awhile, it seems that every race is a new PR. And it feels really good, racing against that previous version of yourself and beating her.

But there will come a time when your body physically cannot match those past performances, even when you’re putting your whole heart into the race. Maybe you’re coming back from an injury, and your body has not yet had time to build back up to its previous fitness. Maybe you’re getting older. Or maybe, as in my case, you’re pregnant, and carrying 20+ extra pounds compared to when you were at your leanest racing weight. At times like these, you have to find other things to celebrate about racing besides new PR’s… or age group awards… or other competitive, performance-based accomplishments that may have motivated you in the past.

Have you ever seen one of those motivational images that say something along the lines of, “It’s not about beating the other runners in the race… it’s about beating the person you were yesterday?” That’s the attitude I’ve taken with my own running for a long time. But only recently have I learned that sometimes, comparing myself to who I used to be can be just as harmful as comparing myself to another runner. You see, I’m NOT the person I was a year ago. I’m a person who has sustained overtraining injuries, recovered from them, and hopefully come out from the experience a little wiser. I’m a person whose legs are now carrying not one human being, but two. When this baby comes out, I’ll have a brand new postpartum body to get used to. It’s silly to expect this brand new version of Sara to do things exactly the same way as the old version of Sara did. And if I don’t change my habit of celebrating only when I beat a previous version of me, I’m going to miss out on the joy of a lot of really good performances with the body I have right now.

As I said, it’s taken me awhile to learn to appreciate my current body and its abilities. I mentioned in my last blog post that I’ve run a few half marathons since coming back from my injury, but they weren’t PR’s. It wasn’t for lack of trying. I set out in those races at a quick, hopeful pace. Maybe I would be able to pick it up at the end and celebrate a new personal best. But those races fell apart in the later miles. I was making the rookie mistake of starting faster than my current fitness could sustain, and I crossed those finish lines feeling tired and defeated instead of victorious.

Run The Line half marathon was different. It had been a couple months (and quite a few pounds of baby weight) since I’d run a half marathon, so I was finally able to let go of any expectations on how I should perform. My amazing coach, Tia, sent me a pace plan custom made for where I currently was at in my pregnancy. And my only goal was to follow THAT pace plan as closely as I could. Was it anywhere close to the paces I was capable of running this time last year, or even a few months ago? No. But was I still planning to celebrate if I stayed within those targets and finished strong? You bet I was!

The morning of the race was chilly and overcast, with temperatures in the 40’s and a chance of rain. Perfect running weather. Josh and I arrived at the start line about 30 minutes before the race start, which gave me time to jog a couple miles and warm up, weaving up and down the sidewalks and little side streets of downtown Texarkana. I saw Tia warming up too, and we smiled and waved at each other. I also got to say hello to lots of friends from the Conway Running Club – there were lots of us here since the race is part of the Arkansas Grand Prix series.

Soon the race was about to start. I made sure to pause my warm up long enough to take a spot in the porta potty lines, because, well, you really don’t want to miss that opportunity when you’re pregnant AND about to run a half marathon!

I took my place at the starting line. Runners around me were shivering, but I felt pretty comfortable thanks to my warm up. We stood and listened to an instrumental version of the National Anthem. And then came the shotgun start! Off we went. I felt like I was running a conservative pace, but I checked my watch just to be sure, and was surprised to see that I was going significantly faster than my goal pace for the first 2 miles. So I forced myself to slow it down. I had nothing to prove today; I just wanted to find a good race rhythm for me and my baby girl and cross that finish line strong.

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Setting off from the start line!

After a couple miles, I found that I felt really good on the slower end of my target pace range. The course had some challenging hills and lots of tight twists and turns, but I felt strong. I focused on keeping a challenging but sustainable rhythm, relaxing my upper body and letting my core and legs do the work.

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Part of the race was on roads, and part was on some pretty bike trails. 
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There were some rough bits of pavement where I had to watch my step, and some deep puddles I had to splash through thanks to last night’s rain. They just added to the fun and challenge of the course! 

It was a fun course, weaving back and forth on the border between Texas and Arkansas.  The rain held off, and the weather stayed perfect for racing – I never felt too hot or too cold. I stopped and walked at the aid stations every couple miles to sip on some fluids. My favorite part of this race was feeling little baby kicks along the way, reminding me that I wasn’t the only one running! It’s cool thinking that running is something special my little one and I have shared together ever since she was conceived. I think she enjoyed this race too!

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Enjoying a more open stretch of road on the course!

The ideal way to finish a half marathon race is to pick up the pace a little bit for the final 3 miles, finishing with a strong negative split. I haven’t managed to do this since coming back from my injury. In fact, in my last couple half marathons the opposite happened — I started really struggling after mile 8 or so, and despite giving those final miles the hardest effort I felt capable of, they ended up being my slowest miles of the races instead of my fastest.

But this time, I got all the way to the mile 10 marker and still felt strong. I couldn’t quite push myself to go any faster, but I was able to sustain the steady pace I’d managed for the first 10 miles of the race. It was hard; I always have to dig deep for the last little stretch of a race. But it felt good. I focused on giving each mile my best effort, not worrying about the miles behind me or the miles to come. The volunteers and spectators cheering me on were a great distraction. My favorite was a little boy who couldn’t have been more than 5 years old, standing on the edge of the street with his mama and giving all the runners high fives.

Soon that finish line was in sight, and I gave as strong a finishing kick as I could manage. My time was nothing special. I’ve run many half marathons faster (and some slower back in my early running days before I had my nutrition figured out.) I placed solidly in the middle of my age group.

And you know what? I was happy! I had the biggest smile on my face when I crossed that finish line. I was proud of myself for accomplishing the goal I’d set out to accomplish. I was proud of this body for doing something it had never done before – racing a solid half marathon while carrying more pounds than it ever has before, including a very precious 5.9 ounces representing my daughter tucked cozily inside her growing baby hotel.

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Finishing with a smile that says it all! 

One day I hope to run another PR in the half marathon… maybe place first in my age group… maybe even win! One day I still hope to run a Boston qualifying time in the marathon. But will any of those finish lines be MORE special than the one I crossed today? I have a hard time imagining that they will. Because through my injuries, and through this pregnancy, I’ve learned that racing is about so much more than the numbers on the clock when you cross the finish line. It’s about all the memories you make and challenges that you overcome in the miles leading up to that moment. And getting to carry MY DAUGHTER (it still feels unreal saying that!) every step of a half marathon is a very special experience indeed!

Wherever you are in your running journey, there is ALWAYS something to be thankful for. And finding those reasons to celebrate and be proud of yourself is a whole lot more fun than playing the comparison game and going home depressed when a race turned out differently than you hoped. I don’t know exactly what to expect with my running over the next several months. Honestly, it makes me laugh to think of waddling through a race course late this spring with the equivalent of a bowling ball under my shirt! But I’m looking forward to the adventure, and to finding lots more things to celebrate and be joyful about along the way.

Oh, Baby… Another Plot Twist!

I have some exciting news to share in this entry! A few months ago, I had to put my Boston qualifying goals on the back burner due to a tibial stress fracture. I took six weeks completely off running and have been gradually building my fitness back up since that time. After my comeback triathlon which I blogged about at the end of the summer, I trained consistently and raced three 5k’s, a 10k, two half marathons, and a one hour track race (a unique experience where you run as many laps as you can in one hour around a standard quarter mile track.)

You’ll notice that even though it has been over seven months since my injury, there still aren’t any marathons on that list of races. And though I gave all these shorter races a strong effort, none of them were PR’s. You see, in November, I had another little plot twist that completely changed my running plans for the upcoming year. This time, it wasn’t an injury… but a much happier surprise of a positive pregnancy test!

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White River Half Marathon with Charlie and Jessica – 4 weeks pregnant! They were two of the very first people to hear my big news!

I decided when I found out that I was pregnant that I would continue to run for as long as I could. But marathon training would again have to take its place on the back burner. Could I physically build back up to a marathon distance while pregnant? Sure, people have done it. But for me personally, I couldn’t see the benefit of pushing my body so hard when it is already devoting so many resources towards growing a human life. There will be time for more marathons after this baby comes. Until then, my primary goal will be to keep me and my little running partner healthy.

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Turkey Trot 5k – almost 5 weeks pregnant! It was really fun winning this small race with my tiny little secret turkey in the oven!

I have dreamed of having a baby of my own for as long as I can remember. And my husband and I are absolutely thrilled to be welcoming this little one into our family. But being pregnant has not been without its challenges.

The first challenge came in the form of first trimester morning sickness. I was fortunate to never actually lose my breakfast. But I suffered constant nausea. I tried all the remedies in the book… ginger, special morning sickness candies, acupressure bands, you name it. But the only thing that really gave me relief was to constantly munch on carbs. I couldn’t stand the thought of my usual protein shakes and balanced meals that have helped me stay lean and healthy for so long. More often than not, dinner was several slices of cheese pizza.

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CASA Half Marathon at 7 weeks pregnant! The fatigue and nausea were really starting to hit me by this point, and it wasn’t my best race. But I’m still so thankful that baby and I had the health and strength to complete it!

So the pounds started packing on, earlier than they’re really supposed to in a pregnancy. Many mornings, it was really hard to get out the door for a run. But I kept doing the best I could, working in a healthy meal here and there when I could stomach it, still logging around 30 miles a week, even powering through my speed workouts and long runs. Strangely enough, even though they were hard, my daily runs were the times that I felt the most normal. I loved the feeling of strength and health that running gave me, a short time of relief from the nausea and exhaustion that were my constant companions the rest of the day.

By the time I reached this second trimester, the nausea started to ease, and I gratefully began to make healthier eating choices again. But now, I barely recognized myself in pictures. There was the beginning of a cute little baby bump that I expected to see… but there was also a lot of extra weight in other places: boobs, butt, thighs. I can’t remember the last time I saw myself looking so out of shape.

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One Hour Track run at 13 weeks pregnant! By this point, I was really starting to notice the weight gain throwing off my balance a bit and making my legs much more tired and heavy than usual. But baby and I found the right pace and rhythm for us, and we still had a very good race!

And it made me a lot more upset than I’d like to admit. I have a long history of struggling with body image issues. In high school, I developed an eating disorder and lost my menstrual cycle for over a year. (I actually wondered back then if this would affect my ability to get pregnant in the future… and I’m so grateful that it didn’t.) I’ve come a long way since then in learning how to appreciate and care for my body instead of deprive it, but it’s still hard sometimes not to measure my self worth by what I look like. The media doesn’t help. Even when you’re pregnant, you’re bombarded with unrealistic images of what an ultra-fit, “bump only” pregnancy is supposed to look like… and let me tell you, those images don’t look anything like me! I knew I hadn’t had the greatest diet over the past couple months, but I HAD worked really hard to stay on top of my running. And it didn’t seem fair that the physical evidence of all my hard-earned training was slowly disappearing behind new layers of fat.

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Valentine’s Day 5k at 16 weeks pregnant – no hiding that baby bump now!

But here’s the thing. Getting to carry a child is a BLESSING. A blessing so much bigger than setting PR’s or having a “perfect” body. I have so many close friends and family members who have longed to have a baby and can’t… or who have gotten pregnant, only to experience the heartbreak of miscarriage. So many people would give anything for the privilege which I now have, extra layers of fluff and all.

 

Learning to love and be proud of this body that is doing so many amazing things!

 

The upcoming months will be like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. And I’ll never have this exact experience again. It’s a special time of making once-in-a-lifetime memories with our unborn child. And I don’t want to waste another moment of this amazing time of pregnancy worrying about trivial things such as how much weight I’m gaining, how fast I’m running, and what other people may be thinking about my appearance during these fleeting few months of my life.

Pregnancy is hard… harder than I thought it would be. My emotions are at an all time high with these raging hormones. When my identity has become so closely tied with my athleticism, it’s hard not to worry about the future. Will I be able to trim back down after the baby? Will I ever be as fast as I was before? Will Boston always be a distant dream?

But worrying about the future accomplishes nothing; it simply robs you of the joy of today. So my goal for the upcoming months is to choose to live in joy and gratitude for what I have right now. It’s actually a relief when you realize that you truly have very little control over the changes your body is undergoing to support this little baby growing inside you. You simply have to relax, make the best decisions you can TODAY to keep the two of you healthy, and trust God with all the worries of tomorrow.

So here’s to a healthy and joyful pregnancy for me and my precious little running buddy, whatever that happens to look like on the outside! I plan to continue to share my experience as a pregnant runner as the months go on. And I hope that by being real about my own pregnancy, maybe I can be an encouragement to some other amazing mamas-to-be out there.

It really is incredible what our bodies can do… the brand new challenges they can rise to, unlike anything they’ve ever done before. Sometimes that challenge is a marathon, and sometimes it’s growing a human life. I didn’t think anything could be as hard as running a marathon, but I stand corrected! I have so much admiration for all the amazing women who have run this race of motherhood before me. It’s a tough course with lots of ups and downs, and sometimes it scares me to death thinking about all the challenges I have yet to face before reaching the finish line (or is it really just the starting line?) in July. But the two of us are going to make it… one mile at a time!

A Summer of Recovery… and my first Tri!

9/2/17

Ever since I was a teenager, when I used to run and bike to school with my dad, and swim laps in the pool in between classes, I always thought it would be really cool to run a triathlon someday. But it just never happened… until today!

My friends Lindsey and Emily talked me into it. I met Lindsey when she adopted one of our foster kittens who we’d been spreading the word about on Facebook. I was in vet school at the time, and struggling to maintain any kind of consistent exercise regimen.

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Kira, the cute little rescue kitten who helped me make a great new friend!

I came to find out that Lindsey is an avid cyclist, who inspired me to take up cycling again myself! Soon, I had done several bike rides with her and her friends. And this year, she told me about this wonderful triathlon she and her friends were training for. They had done it last year, and since I was biking and running anyway, I should do it!

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My first ride with Lindsey and friends!

Well, over the summer, I ended up doing a lot of cross training anyway. I’ve been recovering from a tibial stress fracture sustained during the Revel Rockies marathon. I knew I was injured going into that race, and choosing to race made it even worse. I’m used to bouncing back after a marathon and getting back into my normal routine a couple weeks later… but this time, when I tried to run, my legs physically would not let me do it. It wasn’t just the normal running pain that you can push through. When I tried to run, my muscles and bones literally failed me, and all I could manage was a slow, awkward shuffle that didn’t even resemble running. It was a very humbling experience after all the fast PR’s that I’d set earlier in the year.

Before this experience, I remember hearing fellow runners talk about their injuries and how depressed they were over them, and I thought to myself, “It’s really not that bad! Our bodies heal. Just a few weeks of rest, and you’ll be back stronger than ever.” But it’s not that simple. When you sustain an injury like this that keeps you from doing what you love, you really go through a grieving process. I looked up the 5 stages of grief, and I went through all of them:

  • Denial that I was injured. “This is just normal muscle tightness and soreness… I’m sure it will go away during the taper!”
  • Anger that I couldn’t do what knew I should be capable of doing. “This training cycle was going so well. I nailed every workout leading up to this injury. I should have been able to get this BQ, and everything has fallen apart.”
  • Bargaining. “Maybe if I keep my running really light for the last couple of weeks leading up to the marathon, I can still push through and have a good race.”
  • Depression as I realized that this activity that brings me so much joy, that I’d put so much work into over the past few years, had been abruptly taken away from me, and there was nothing I could do about it.
  • Acceptance. “Wait… there IS something I can do about it. I can’t run right now, but what CAN I do? It doesn’t hurt to walk… or bike… or swim… maybe I can give yoga a try…”

And so the summer went by. “You can’t run for at least 6 weeks,” is what my doctor told me. It felt like much longer than that. But the time went by, and I did what I could on the bike and in the pool.

Finally the 6 weeks was up, and I began using a walk/run plan recommended by my coach to gradually start easing back into running again. It was very humbling. My speed and endurance that I’d spent so long building up were greatly decreased. I didn’t just “bounce back” like I assumed would happen with my injured running friends who were once telling me about their woes. Nope, despite the cross training, getting back into running has been hard work. 2-mile runs left me with muscle soreness as if I’d never been a runner before. At the time of this writing, my longest run since the injury has been 5 miles, a distance I once breezed through on my easy days of running, but that I’ve now had to slowly build back up to. There is nothing easy about being injured, or about the slow process of building back up to where you were even after your injury is healed and you’re cleared to run.

Around the time I was starting to run again, I received a message from Emily reminding me about this triathlon, and asking if I was planning to do it. Well… I mean, I HAD been doing some swimming and biking over the summer. And the running part was only a 5k. I wasn’t kidding myself that I would be able to do it fast, but surely I could at least complete it. And it might be a fun way to celebrate my recovery and make something positive out of all the non-running activities I’d been doing over the summer to keep from going crazy.

So I signed up. And last night, after Joshua got off work, he and I made the trek up to Bentonville. I love going to races with him. It means so much having him there cheering me on, and it’s always fun having a little date night at the local restaurants and hotels!

This was definitely the least prepared I’ve ever felt for a race. Yes, I’d done a little biking and swimming… but I had certainly not done any formal training for a triathlon. And what were all these numbers in my bag?! I was used to having one bib pinned to my tank top… where was I supposed to put all these stickers? And I had to go find someone to write numbers on my body too? And where was I supposed to put my bike and all the stuff I would need for transitions? How do I put on this swim cap? Where was the start line even…? I hope I didn’t look as overwhelmed and discombobulated as I felt with so many seasoned triathletes around me. I was very relieved to see a familiar face – Cassie, who also rides with Lindsey and Emily. She helped me figure out what all those numbers in my race packet were for, and patiently answered a bunch of other silly questions that I had.

The race start was VERY different than the usual anthem and “ready, set, go!” that I’m used to at running races. We started with the swim segment which was in a pool. We lined up according to our expected paces. (I had no clue what my expected pace was, so I stayed close to my friends.) Each athlete got in the pool one at a time, with 10 seconds between them.. We were supposed to swim to the end of the pool, go under the rope separating the lanes, and swim back in the next lane, repeating this zig-zag pattern all the way across the pool. We stood in line a long time waiting for our turn, and I was starting to shiver in the chilly morning. Finally it was my turn, and I jumped into the pool.  

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The race begins!

I’ve always enjoyed swimming laps, finding it relaxing to fall into a rhythm, breathing easily on every third stroke. But today was different. I don’t know if it was adrenaline or what. But I felt like I was hyperventilating, and trying to breathe on every third stroke just wasn’t working for my oxygen needs. I started to panic and swallow water. I couldn’t get enough air in my lungs. A few times, I had to roll over on my back and just breathe, regathering myself before I flipped back over to try again. I expected to be slow, but I never expected this. I am not a person who is prone to panic attacks, and this caught me completely off guard. Even Joshua told me afterwards that he was worried about me, watching me resort to a backstroke when he knows that I am usually a strong swimmer.

I was very relieved when the swim was finally over and I could get started on the bike ride. This was something I’d done before in a race setting… something I was comfortable with. It was hard getting my wet feet into my shoes. But I finally wiggled them on, jogged my bike out of the transition area, and hopped on.

The bike ride consisted of 4 laps around a loop course that added up to a little over 15 miles. I enjoyed it. There was a big hill or two, but after the first time around the loop, I knew when to expect them. The temperature was perfect for riding and the breeze quickly dried me off.

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The bike course was pretty fast, except for this hill that we had to climb four times!
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Riding felt so good after that terrible swim!

Then it was back to transition. Cassie and I came in at the same time. She was off running before me, as I had issues getting my wet feet into my running shoes. I knew running right off the bike would be hard, but I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed in my performance. I had run a 7:10/mi average pace at the Glo Run 5k in April, and today I couldn’t even get under an 8:00/mi pace. Yes, I’d been injured and hadn’t done any speed work in a long time… yes, I just got off a bike… yes, a pace in the low 8:00’s is still pretty good for me. But it was still humbling realizing that this was my limit today. Oh well… I signed up for this triathlon with a plan to have fun and go with the flow, so I would do just that. I relaxed a little and enjoyed the pretty course through a park.

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The run! There was something comforting making it to the part of the race that felt the most familiar.

When I got to the finish line, Joshua was there cheering for me. He’d always been waiting for me at the transition area too. It was so wonderful seeing him and feeling his support during every stage of this race. Cassie was already there, too. She had flown through the last 5k, getting first place in the master’s category! Lindsey and Emily were right behind us, and we enjoyed celebrating together afterwards with yummy post-race food. (My favorite were the Yasso bars… frozen greek yogurt that tastes just like ice cream!)

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Finish line smile! I don’t remember even noticing the photographer.

Were there things I could have done better in this race? Yes. I could have made the commitment to sign up earlier, and design a training plan specifically to prepare me for this race instead of doing a bike ride here and a swim there whenever I felt like it. I could definitely have focused on better nutrition in the days leading up to the race… I overindulged substantially on Thursday at the party my coworkers threw me for my last day of work at that clinic. In the pool, I feel like I would have done much better if I’d eased into my stroke instead of trying to go fast from the beginning. I’ll have to experiment with that.

But overall, it was a great first triathlon. Any day that you finish a race is a good one. And it’s especially wonderful when you have friends there to cheer on and visit with. I even saw Ben, who I ran with in the Joplin Marathon over a year ago. (Ironically, that was his first marathon… just as this was my first triathlon!)

So I’m not going to dwell on the things that went wrong. Today, I’m choosing to focus on all the things I have to celebrate. This amazing body that God has blessed me with, capable of so much more than I give it credit for. The healing and recovery He is providing, allowing me to build slowly back up to where I was. The valuable lessons I’ve learned through this process of injury and recovery. He works through everything that happens in our lives, and today I’m thankful for His gift of letting me complete this race. I can’t wait to see what’s next!

Revel Rockies Marathon 2017

The journey leading up to this marathon was a roller coaster. There were PR’s in shorter distances that made me wonder if I might be able to qualify for Boston during this race. And there were struggles with injury, and some absolutely awful runs that made me wonder if I would be able to complete the race at all.

I signed up for Revel Rockies in January, before I’d even run my PR at Mississippi River. The race website promised beautiful scenery and a smooth downhill grade throughout the course, making it a great opportunity for runners to PR or BQ. And I had family in Denver who I hadn’t seen in years, so it would be a great opportunity to have a fun little vacation and visit them.

In the coming months, I continued training according to the plans Tia sent me each week. There were challenging speed workouts every Tuesday, long runs on the weekends, and easy days to bring my total weekly distance into the 35-45 mile range.

With a busy work schedule, it was sometimes very challenging to get these workouts in. I couldn’t have done it without Joshua’s support. He put up with many early bedtimes and early mornings. Once, he drove me to a hill at 4:00am so I could get in a set of hill repeats before work. Another morning, he came and picked me up when I lost track of my distance during an out-and-back tempo workout, leaving me two miles away from home when I finished! One Friday evening, he drove me to the trail for an evening 16-miler since I couldn’t fit it in any other time that week, and he waited for me in the parking lot the whole time, sending me encouraging texts when it got tough. Serious marathon training requires just as much sacrifice from family members as it does from runners, and I am so blessed to have a husband who gladly makes those sacrifices to support me in my goals.

Training went really well for most of the cycle. The workouts continued to challenge me, but I got through them. I even ran a few races, setting new PR’s in my 2-mile, 5k, and half marathon distances. I was especially excited about the half, which I ran on a hilly course in Jonesboro at an 8:07/mile average pace – faster than the pace I would need to maintain in a marathon to qualify for Boston! If I could do it for a half marathon distance, maybe with a little more time and training, I could do it for a marathon distance as well.

But then, about a month before the marathon, my workouts began to fall flat. My legs were not recovering as well as usual, and I began to have a persistent tightness and pain in my right calf. I kept hoping it would go away after a couple easy days, but it didn’t. Every time I ran long or did speed work, it felt worse.

After an awful week of training in which all of my runs started as a slow, painful shuffle, and I didn’t hit anywhere close to target pace on my speed workout or long run, I finally had to accept that maybe I had injured myself. Even walking was painful, and stairs were absolutely miserable. I emailed Tia to tell her what was going on, and we cut way back on my training, hoping my body would be able to recover in time for the marathon.

This was a very low point for me emotionally and physically. I had put my whole heart into training all year, my hopes high for the upcoming race. Now, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to finish it at all, much less set a new PR or BQ.

But eventually I realized that no good would come from me worrying about things outside my control. I would focus on the things I could do to support my recovery – rest, nutrition, stretching, foam rolling, a massage, KT tape – and we would just see what happened on race day. I was thankful to have a week in Colorado with my aunt and uncle to adjust to the altitude. Joshua arrived in the middle of the week, and exploring Denver and the surrounding mountains together was a pleasant distraction from worrying about my injuries.

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At the top of Mount Evans with Joshua the day before the race!

Ready or not, race day came. My legs still were not working as well as they had pre-injury, but they were better. My plan was to take one mile at a time and do my best.

The night before the race, I stayed with Stacy, a fellow Marathon Maniac. She was hosting several other Maniacs as well. I was thankful for the chance to carpool in the morning, sparing my family the 3:00am drive to catch the bus to the top of the mountain! When I arrived at 8:00pm, most of the other runners had already gone to bed. I soon followed their example, although it was difficult to fall asleep with my pre-race nervousness.

In the wee hours of the morning when we came downstairs for breakfast, I was delighted to see a familiar face – Angie, who had paced me during my second marathon, was staying at Stacy’s house as well! After a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, we piled into our cars to head to the bus area. It was early, but we were all too excited to be sleepy. We chatted and exchanged running stories throughout the drive.

When we got to the bus stop, we found Jessica, and got a seat together at the back of the bus. Jessica and I have very similar goals of qualifying for Boston, and we’d been looking forward to this doing this race together all year. Jessica had even driven up to Arkansas three weeks earlier so we could get in a long downhill training run at Mount Magazine. It was great getting to catch up on the bus ride! A bright full moon lit our way as we rode up the mountain, and the sun was just peeking over the horizon when we arrived at the mountaintop.

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Laura, Angie, Jessica and me in the bus on the way up the mountain!

At over 10,000 feet elevation, it was COLD. There were still piles of snow along the edges of the road. I had forgotten to bring my emergency blanket that we’d been provided in our race bags, and was very thankful when another runner offered me his. We still had an hour before the race started, so Jessica and I found a comfy spot to sit down and wrap ourselves tightly in our crinkly mylar blankets, laughing about how we all looked like cold pieces of trash on the side of the road.

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It was so cold! I have no idea who the runner was who gave me his blanket, but I don’t know what I would have done without him!

Soon enough, it was time to gather at the start line. We stopped for a quick Marathon Maniacs picture on the way. It was hard leaving our blankets behind!

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Maniacs at the top of the mountain!

And then, we were off! Usually when I start a marathon, I have to be careful that I don’t go out too fast. Today, my stiff legs didn’t give me any choice but to start slow, other runners speeding past me.

This wouldn’t be the perfect race that I’d dreamed about when I signed up six months ago. I could have allowed myself to become discouraged, but I decided that I would rather face the upcoming miles with gratitude. Gratitude that I had made it to the start line at all. Gratitude for each mile that God allowed me to complete without severe pain or injury. Gratitude for the beautiful scenery surrounding me. Gratitude for all the support from family and friends who were cheering me on no matter what.

I gradually eased into the quickest rhythm that I thought I would be able to sustain over the upcoming miles. For the past several weeks, I had struggled to maintain even a 10:00 pace on my training runs. I was pleasantly surprised to look down at my watch and see that I was pacing around 8:40… the same pace I’d run the Mississippi River Marathon! There were still many miles to go, and I knew there was no guarantee that I would be able to sustain this pace if my injuries started flaring up. But I was thankful for that one good mile. I decided that for this race, as the miles ticked by, I would whisper a little prayer of gratitude for each mile that I completed. “Thank you for letting me get through that first mile with so little pain. Thank you for that strong second mile. Thank you for that beautiful sunrise during the third mile…”

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Smiling for the photographer early in the race!
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The overcast skies and cool temperatures early in the race made for perfect running weather!

It was not pain free. Downhill races pound your legs in ways you can’t understand if you’ve never run one, and I started this one with legs that were already bothering me. But the pain was manageable, and I kept on moving.

This was the first time I’d run a marathon without a hydration pack, so making sure I stayed hydrated at the water stops was a pleasant distraction. The first couple times, I tried to run and drink at the same time. But I ended up wearing more Powerade and water than I drank, so at the rest of the stops, I walked just long enough to gulp down my fluids and then took off running again. I didn’t lose as much time in those miles as I thought I would, and it was great being able to run without a bulky pack. I think I’ll continue to use this as my hydrating strategy.

I kept my splits fairly even until around mile 12. At this point in the race, there were several hills that we had to run up. Normally, a few hills in a race wouldn’t be an issue. But with the altitude, and the pounding on our legs from the previous downhill miles, these hills felt extra challenging. The sun was also coming out at this point, and it was starting to get hot. My pace was slowing down a little, but I kept a positive mindset and did my best. “Thank you for letting me get up that hill in mile 12. Thank you for helping me run strong through mile 13…”

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Things got more challenging when the sun came out and the weather started heating up!
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Time for an Amped Fuel gel! I spaced these about an hour apart, and they really helped keep me going when I started to fatigue!

Around mile 14 was one of the best moments of this marathon. Cheering at the top of their lungs on the sidelines were my aunt, uncle, cousin, husband, and my MOM who had flown in late last night! This was the first time I’d seen her in months… and the first time I’d ever had one of my parents come to see me race. This special moment lifted my spirits through the coming miles. I couldn’t wait to see everyone again at the finish line!

At mile 20, things got challenging again. My stomach started acting up, forcing me to make a porta potty stop. I hate having to stop and use the bathroom during a race, but it couldn’t be helped. I made it as quick as possible, and then took off running again. During other races, I’ve allowed myself to get discouraged by moments like this. “This race is ruined. I’m out of my groove now, and I’ll never be able to get back on pace. Might as well enjoy walking some more before I start running again.”  This time, I made a conscious effort to stay positive, and decided to make this into a game. “Ok… I lost some time during that stop, but let’s see how quick I can make this mile in spite of it! My legs are still feeling pretty good, so let’s see what they can do!”

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Digging deep in the final miles of the race!

Our minds are powerful. And even though my last miles were slower than my first ones, they weren’t as slow as I thought they might be. My legs got a little tired and heavy towards the end, but I never hit the wall. Pain was there, but it was never more than I could endure. Honestly, I felt better right now than I’d felt during some of my training runs in the past few weeks. I knew that I could keep going.

A smile crossed my face around mile 22. That was when I realized that I was going to finish this race. Even if something awful happened, I could limp the rest of the way to the finish line if I needed to. But by the grace of God, I was still running! I wasn’t running fast enough to get a PR. But I was still running faster than I’d dared to hope after some of my discouraging training runs lately, and for that, I was thankful.

Another of my favorite moments of this race happened around mile 25.5. I was approaching a runner I thought I recognized… yes… that was Jessica! She had been far ahead of me for most of the race, but like me, she was struggling with the heat in these final miles. I forced my tired legs to catch up with her. In the months leading up to this race, we had encouraged each other, trained together, and now we would get to finish together! I couldn’t think of any way I would rather end this race.

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Loved getting to run the last little bit of the race with Jessica!

And before we knew it, the finish line was there in front of us. We were so happy and grateful to cross it! It was a PR for Jessica! And despite my injuries and porta-potty stop, I still managed to run it only four minutes slower than my PR!

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The only thing better than crossing the finish line of a marathon is getting to share the experience with a friend!

I could barely walk, and the coming week would be the toughest recovery week that I’ve ever faced. But I was so grateful for this finish, and for the priceless memories that I got to make along the way.

Other races will always be waiting. And it will be really cool when I get that next PR, and when I finally qualify for Boston! But even if this race didn’t go exactly the way I hoped, it was still full of precious moments that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

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Hugging Joshua across the railings of the finisher’s chute. Couldn’t have done this without him!
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Jessica and me with our hard earned medals!
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Such a special experience getting to have my Mama here for a race!

Mississippi River Marathon (a.k.a. Lucky #13!)

My 13th marathon was different from all previous marathons I’ve run to date. It was very different in how I prepared for it, and I approached it with a different mindset than I have other marathons in the past.

I had lots of really great running adventures in 2016. Racing was my hobby, something I went out and did as many weekends as possible because it was fun! It was a great way to make friends and make memories. And I even improved some in my marathon time, just from racing frequently and maintaining a decent level of mileage between races.

Then the New Year came along. And New Years have a way of making you reflect on things you want to do a little differently. I started to wonder if I was really running to my full potential. My training lacked structure. Recently, between races, I was only doing a few short runs during the week. Every now and then I might throw in a few strides and call it “speed work.” I tried to do a little strength training now and then as well. But I had stopped seeing any really significant improvements in my marathon time since Oshkosh in April.

In my mind, I played around with different running goals for the New Year. Someday, I would really love to work on training for longer ultra-marathons. I have deeply enjoyed my recent trail running experiences, and have been so inspired by my friends who have completed ultra distances all the way up to 100-milers.

But another thing I would really love to do is qualify for Boston. And in order to do that, I would need to get a lot more  organized and intentional about my training. I would need to start doing things I’d never done before, like true speed workouts to improve my pace, and consistent strength and mobility training to keep my body balanced and help prevent injury.

I finally decided to postpone my goal of training for ultras, and pursue improvement in my road marathon time instead. With no background in track or cross country, I really didn’t know very much about the technical aspects of training to get faster. I needed a coach.

I started researching various coaches in the area. And then the thought occurred to me… why not send a message to Tia Stone and see if she had any recommendations? Tia is a very inspiring runner I’d been following on Strava for awhile. She is extremely fast, and has won overall female at many central Arkansas marathons, including 3 Bridges which I ran in December. And a fun little coincidence, she also happens to be a fellow Harding graduate! If anyone could give me a good recommendation on a coach who could help me my marathon performance, surely she could.

Tia responded with some very helpful information sharing her experiences with various coaches over the years. And I was thrilled to find out that she herself offered online coaching services! With my busy and often unpredictable schedule as a veterinarian, online coaching seemed like a good solution to give me some guidance to train properly, while still allowing some flexibility regarding when I squeezed those runs in.

So we got started the second week of January. Tia sent me a schedule with my workouts for the week, including target mileage and paces for various segments of those workouts, and I programmed them into my Garmin and did them. I’ll be honest, when I first saw some of my speed work assignments, I was terrified. Could I really maintain that fast of a pace over the prescribed distance?

But I decided to approach those workouts with a positive attitude and an open mind, embracing the challenges as opportunities to become a stronger runner and bring me closer to my goals, regardless of whether I executed the workout perfectly. And I was surprised to find that my body was actually capable of much more than I gave it credit for! Not every workout was perfect, but more often than not, I came much closer to accomplishing the goal of the run than I thought I would.

Four weeks of this training went by before it was time to start tapering for the Mississippi River Marathon, a point-to-point race that starts in Lake Village, Arkansas, and ends in Greenville, Mississippi. I really didn’t expect four weeks of coaching to make much of a difference in my performance. Surely it would take at least a few months for my body to adapt and realize the benefits of the speed workouts I’d been doing. But maybe with this flat course in the Mississippi Delta, I could at least run a little faster than my PR of 3:57:56 on the hilly course of the Tyler Rose Marathon.

A few days before the race, Tia sent me an e-mail with a detailed pacing strategy for the race, customized for the expected warm weather. She thought I could run between a 3:49 – 3:53. This seemed a little fast to me, but I planned to approach this race just like I’d approached all the previous workouts she’d sent me: I would focus only on one mile at a time. I would celebrate each beep of my Garmin that announced I ran that single mile at target pace. I would not waste any time worrying about the previous miles or what might happen in the miles that lay ahead. I would give each mile my best effort, and if I slowed down in the later miles, well… this race would still be a valuable learning experience!

Staying busy at work helped keep me from getting too nervous the Friday before the race. I finally managed to get out of the clinic around 6pm, and immediately left for the 2.5 hour drive to Greenville. The race expo would close at 8pm, but thankfully Cate and Heather (who were running the half tomorrow and actually had been the ones who suggested this race to me!) had already arrived in Greenville and offered to pick up my packet for me. So I relaxed and enjoyed the drive, listening to audiobooks and enjoying some breathtaking views of a full snow moon reflecting on Lake Chicot. My heart raced a little faster as I neared Greenville and started seeing mile markers and porta potties on the side of the road all ready for the race tomorrow!

I met Cate and Heather at a little Italian restaurant called Lillo’s, which has been there for over 60 years! The spaghetti, eggplant parmesan, and salad were delicious after the long drive. After we finished dinner, we headed to the hotel for an early bedtime. Tomorrow morning, we would get up early to meet the buses which would be leaving promptly at 6:30 to bring us to our respective start lines. I spent the last few minutes of the evening reading over Tia’s e-mail again, committing the pacing strategy to memory. It felt strange actually having a strategy for my race. So many times in the past, I’d gone to bed the night before a marathon with nothing more than a vague plan to give it my best effort and enjoy myself!

I slept surprisingly well despite my pre-race jitters, and started the morning with some coffee, a small bowl of oatmeal from the continental breakfast that the hotel had set out early for the runners, and my usual IsaLean shake and pre-workout supplements. Soon it was time to head out. I carpooled with Cate and Heather, and we got a quick picture together before parting ways and loading our respective buses.

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Quick group picture before loading our buses!

The bus ride reminded me a lot of a very similar ride to the start line of the Hotter than Hades half marathon that I ran a couple years ago. This race had taken place in Leland, MS, just a few miles from where we were now. The scenery was very similar – perfectly flat fields as far as the eye could see. I enjoyed watching the sunrise out the window and chatting some some fellow runners.

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The bus ride to the start line! 
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Beautiful Mississippi sunrise. My phone camera didn’t do it justice. 

Finally the bus dropped us off at the start area. The morning air was chilly, and I was happy to see the fires that had been set up for us runners to warm ourselves. I was less happy to see the long line in front of the porta-potties, which was not moving nearly fast enough for us all to get a chance to use them before it was time for the race to start. I finally gave up and found some bushes which served my pre-race needs well enough.

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This start area reminded me so much of the one at Hotter than Hades. Except that it was actually kind of chilly this morning, so we had little campfires to keep us warm! 
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My only complaint about this race was that they needed more porta potties at the start line. (But at least now I can say that I got to stand in a porta potty line with the famous Larry Macon in the yellow jacket, a Marathon Maniac legend who has run over 1600 marathons and counting!)

Soon it was time to assemble at the start line. I was excited to see Amanda and Jackie, two fellow runners from Conway! Their pace goals were very similar to my own. Maybe we would end up running together for some of the race.

Right before the race start, I found a tree to hold onto and did some leg swings, partly to loosen up my muscles and partly just to get rid of some nervous energy. I really wasn’t sure if I could succeed in my goals for the miles that lay ahead. But I would certainly give it my best effort.

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Ready to go at the start line.

Finally, the clock hit 8:00, and we were off. The first two miles are a warmup, I kept repeating to myself, remembering the advice in Tia’s e-mail. Let those other runners go ahead, and don’t go faster than target pace. I checked my watch often to make sure I wasn’t going out too fast, a mistake that I have payed for more than once in previous races.

Those first two miles breezed by, and it was time to pick up the pace a bit and settle into marathon rhythm for miles 3-21. It was warm and humid, and there was a strong headwind. I wasn’t sure how long I would be able to maintain this pace. But I was pretty sure I could keep it up for one mile. I focused hard on keeping my upper body as relaxed as possible, channeling my energy to my legs. Whenever I could, I tried to stay close to other runners to help block the wind. That one mile passed by… and another… and another. I celebrated each beep of my Garmin which told me that I had stayed on target pace.

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Settling into my pace in the early miles. I enjoyed the views of Lake Chicot off to our left. 

The course was extremely flat, with no trees to provide shade or break the wind. I was thankful for the cloud cover in the early miles of the race. I might have found the scenery boring if I was running this race purely for recreation. But the long, straight stretches of road actually lent themselves well to settling into my goal rhythm. The miles kept ticking by, and so far, I was still on target.

Around mile 10, the course curved, and the headwind began to turn into a tailwind. I was very thankful for this little blessing, especially since the one climb of the race – the bridge over the Mississippi River – was coming up in a couple more miles.

The climb up the bridge wasn’t as bad as I anticipated. The tailwind definitely helped. I ran near the edge so I could enjoy the view.

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Made it up the bridge!

Coming down the other side of the bridge, I started to feel a blister developing on the ball of my foot. It was annoying, but nothing I couldn’t deal with. I was happy that the rest of me was still feeling pretty good.

The miles kept ticking by. And the sun also kept getting higher, and the weather hotter. I forced myself to keep my mindset positive, focusing only on one mile at a time. I’d run good races in warm weather before. I could do this for at least one more mile.

Mile 21 was when things really started to get hard. This was the point at which Tia had told me to give it everything I had left. And I did. It took every bit of my effort and focus to get through those last 5 miles. The end of a marathon is never a walk in the park, but the escalating heat made this especially difficult.

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Working hard to stay focused in the late miles. 

I was pouring sweat at this point, and was very thankful for the aid stations placed only a mile apart. I still haven’t perfected the art of drinking those little cups of water on the run without making a huge mess, but honestly I was just as glad to splash the water on my hot face as I was to drink it.

This was seriously hard, and the miles seemed to stretch on forever. All I wanted to do was stop and walk, as many runners around me were doing. But I was supposed to be leaving everything I had on the course… and maybe I could do that for just one more mile… and one more mile… and one more mile. God, please give these legs strength for just one more mile…

Finally I could see the finish line… at the end of a very long, straight stretch of road which felt like it was taking absolutely forever to run! I knew I’d given it all I had by how difficult it was to work up my finish line sprint the last couple tenths of a mile.

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I’ve never been more ready to cross a finish line! 

Oh, it felt so good to finally cross that finish line! And I couldn’t believe what the clock said. 3:48:46! This was over nine minutes faster than my previous PR at Tyler Rose, and 14 seconds faster than the low end of that 3:49-3:53 that I thought looked “too fast” when I was reading Tia’s e-mail last night!

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New PR!!!

I was so exhausted that I could barely walk to the finisher’s tent. I had chafed badly despite putting on copious amounts of Body Glide that morning, and the blister on my foot was huge. But I was ecstatic.

Several of my running friends from Conway were there to congratulate me. It was wonderful seeing some familiar faces in a sea of strangers here in Mississippi. I hobbled over to the results tent for my official time. And I literally did a happy dance when I saw that not only had I PR’ed, but I’d also placed first in my age group! I had never done this before!! And almost as exciting was the discovery that I had run negative splits between the first and second halves of the race. Fighting through those last 5 miles had paid off. I couldn’t wait to text my results to Tia!

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Official results!
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My beautiful age group award! 
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I packed this tank top optimistically hoping I would get a chance to wear it. And I did! 🙂 
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It was so good seeing some friends at the finish line! 

Soon Cate and Heather arrived to pick me up – they finished the half a couple hours earlier, and had already been back to the hotel to clean up. We enjoyed a delicious lunch together before getting back on the road home to Arkansas, with a small detour to a very cool little home decorating store!

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Cate, Heather, and I enjoying some well earned relaxation after the race! 

The drive home gave me plenty of time to reflect on the race. I was happily surprised at what a success it had been on so many levels. I’d PR’ed. I’d won my age group for the first time in my life. I’d run negative splits… without having to rely on a pace group. I’d simply followed the plan laid out for me by my coach, taking one mile at a time, trusting her strategy and greater running experience. And it honestly couldn’t have gone better.

I still have some time to shave off before I’m really close to a Boston qualification. But this race was a big step in the right direction. This race, and the 4 weeks of training leading up to it, has taught me to never underestimate the challenges your body can rise to when you have the commitment and determination to give it your best shot.

I experienced a big breakthrough in my running when I changed my nutrition, and now I’m experiencing another one as I’ve started working with an amazing coach. I’m so excited to see what the months ahead will bring! Maybe… just maybe… with a lot of hard work and a little faith… my dream of running Boston will become a reality sooner rather than later.